(Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information from the police noting that Sasser killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest, not to the head, as initial information from law enforcement said.)
Lt. Robert C. Sasser had a well-documented history of misconduct as a Glynn County police officer, but nothing outdid his final spectacle of violence Thursday when he shot and killed his estranged wife and her boyfriend, before fatally shooting himself in the chest.
The incident has left authorities in Glynn County exposed to charges that one of their own was given special treatment that led to Thursday’s killings. Sasser was one of the most notorious officers in Georgia after the brutal 2010 shooting death of Caroline Small where he and another officer sprayed bullets across the windshield of the unarmed mother. Both officers escaped punishment and kept their badges and guns, despite strong evidence the shooting was unjustified.
“This just never should have happened,” said William Atkins, an Atlanta civil rights attorney who represented Small’s family after the shooting. “He never should have had this opportunity. The signs were everywhere.”
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Just last month, a judge banned Sasser from Glynn County after a pair of violent episodes. The first, on May 13, involved a domestic violence arrest involving his wife, Katie, and was followed just days later by a nine-hour armed standoff with SWAT police that ended with a felony arrest after Sasser tried to assault officers.
Despite violating his bond in the domestic violence arrest, a Glynn County judge gave Sasser bond a second time for the assault of the officers.
Sasser, who goes by the name Cory, had been living in Alabama with a sister in recent weeks. His bond conditions included staying away from firearms, avoiding his estranged wife and attending regular mental health counseling.
But a court hearing related to his divorce drew him back to Brunswick on Tuesday. The hearing didn’t go his way, according to his criminal defense attorney, who said a judge offered very limited visitation rights for Sasser to see his 10-year-old son.
“I’m angry,” said attorney Alan David Tucker. “I’m pissed (at him). I can’t do anything about it because he’s dead. I and others went to bat for him.”
Sasser threatened victims Tuesday
Sasser’s estranged wife and a male friend, John Hall Jr., Sasser’s victims, complained to Glynn County police Tuesday night that Sasser made a threatening gesture toward them that evening while eating at Moondoggy’s Pizza in Brunswick. Sasser allegedly held his bare hand up like a gun and pretended to pull the trigger.
Gossip about the encounter travelled through circles in Brunswick on Wednesday, when Hall met with police investigators to report what happened.
At a news conference Friday, Glynn County Police Chief John Powell confirmed the department received a complaint, but did not provide specifics. He defended his agency against allegations it didn’t act or take the threat seriously. He said the department launched an investigation into the threat.
“We were working in concert with judicial authorities to identify if there was probable cause to make an arrest,” he said. “We were taking every step available to us under the law to ensure a safe outcome.”
Sasser met with Tucker in Tucker’s office in Brunswick on Monday.
Sasser was being treated at a VA hospital in Alabama for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and appeared to be doing better, Tucker said. Sasser had a job lined up a job in South Florida as a firearms instructor and to give active shooter lessons, Tucker said.
In a 20-minute phone call Wednesday night, Sasser seemed upset about the way the divorce hearing had played out, but he wasn’t “ranting and raving,” according to Tucker.
Ominously, Tucker said Sasser called a family member Thursday and spoke about getting his affairs in order. But Tucker said he did not learn of the call until Friday.
“If I’d have seen this coming I would have called somebody,” Tucker said. “I just didn’t see it. None of us saw this.”
History of misconduct
Others, however, say Sasser’s checkered record as a police officer should have set off alarm bells long ago.
Sasser bent and twisted the truth to fit his purposes or to avoid punishment, records show. He lied to his superiors multiple times, including one episode where he misled them about writing the word “untouchable” on his computer screen after a sexual harassment complaint against him was dismissed. His professional credibility was so thin that federal authorities stopped allowing him to testify in federal court cases.
Atkins, the Small family attorney, blamed the Glynn County police department for allowing Sasser to continue work as an officer and receive promotions even with his checkered record. The Small case, in particular, was troubling. The GBI supervisor who oversaw the investigation called it the worst police shooting he’d ever reviewed.
Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s handling of the case was also highly questionable. She gave Sasser and the other officer, Michael T. Simpson, the evidence in the case weeks before it went to the grand jury and she allowed an inaccurate animation created by the Glynn police department to be shown to the grand jury.
Years later, after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation questioned her actions, several of her former prosecutors accused Johnson of prosecutorial misconduct. They called the case a coverup and blamed Johnson for mishandling the case.
“The Glynn county police department has been protecting Cory Sasser for 20 years,” Atkins said. “They’ve protected him at every turn. And it sure seems like they did it again here.”
The Justice for Caroline Small group that formed in 2015 after the AJC’s investigation, however, believes responsibility for Thursday’s events extends far beyond the local police.
The group for the past few years had been making appeals to Gov. Nathan Deal, then-Attorney General Sam Olens, the Glynn Commission and District Attorney Johnson to reopen the case and hold Sasser and the other officer accountable.
Those appeals went nowhere and no public official would touch the controversial case. The Tallahassee-based group, which includes Small’s mother, expressed sympathy to the families connected to Thursday’s killings.
“It saddens us even more to realize that these deaths could have been prevented,” said Robert Apgar, the group’s spokesman. “Once again, children have lost their parents and families have lost their loved ones at Corey Sasser’s hand. Too many lives have been lost due to public officials protecting and promoting one unfit to wear a badge.”
--Chanel 2 Action News reporter Nicole Carr contributed reporting.